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It’s holiday party time. Here’s how to nail a first impression (and correct a bad one)

by Dinsa Sachan

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You meet an attractive person for a date but they ghost you. You interview for an ideal job, but don’t make the cut. Sometimes, you have just one opportunity to influence someone. That’s why first impressions are so important.

Why first impressions matter

First impressions give others a snapshot of who you are. “It is that very first ‘flicker’ of insight you get about another person when you first meet them,” says Denise M. Dudley, Ph.D., author of “Work It! Get In, Get Noticed, Get Promoted”. “Whether or not you’re deliberately attempting to size up the other person, and whether or not you’re even aware that you’re taking a first impression, your brain is very busy making certain assessments.”

A first meeting should feel warm, welcoming, and unrushed.

When you first meet someone, they’ll make little judgments about you by default. Do I like him? Is he my kind of person? “First impression is based on the person’s physical looks, actions, accent, tone, body language, how they communicate, and how they introduce themselves to you,” says Kristie Overstreet, Ph.D., a clinical sexologist and psychotherapist.

During lengthy first interactions, people have more time to observe you and your behavior. It’s important to be careful about your responses in these situations because others simply don’t know your background. “If, for example, someone was planning on meeting you for the first time, but was told beforehand that your dog just passed away, they might be able to attach your sullen expression to this event and use further information to build a mental image of you,” says Katie Krimer, MS, LMSW, a New York City-based therapist. “However, we’re not often lucky enough that people simply know our personal circumstances and so we’re left with having to be reasonably friendly and personable in order to make a good first impression.”

First impression pitfalls to avoid

There are some proven ways to make an instant connection with anyone—and create a favorable impression. “Making eye contact generally conveys more confidence and perceived intellect when interacting with another person or group,” says Christine Weber Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist in Seaford, New York.

At many events, you won’t have much time to interact with one person. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make the effort to give them your full attention. “A first meeting should feel warm, welcoming, and unrushed,” recommends Dudley.

When you first meet someone, they’ll make little judgments about you by default.

An overly talkative person can turn people away—that’s why it’s important to speak thoughtfully and listen attentively. “Say your name, and then add, ‘It’s wonderful to meet you,’ or a similar phrase, but allow the other person to not only reciprocate with the initial greeting but also to initiate the conversation that comes afterward,” says Dudley.

Every meeting is different, and if you have the opportunity to be a little prepared, seize it. “If you have specific information about the context of the first impression … it is helpful to make any adjustments that might strengthen the first impression,” says Krimer.

If you feel things aren’t going right during your interaction, come clean about it. “You don’t want to be fake—that’s clearly misrepresenting yourself,” says Hannah Roberts, Psy. D., a licensed clinical psychologist based in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

While first impressions are important, don’t try too hard to impress. “Most people’s ‘spidey senses’ are very well-tuned to detect insincerity, so it’s important to cultivate a genuinely warm smile, an assertive handshake, and a true, heartfelt interest in others,” says Dudley. “In other words, it has a lot to do with where you’re coming from: if you’re truly happy to meet someone, they’ll sense it from your body language, your tone of voice, your facial expression, and your words.”

And if you feel your first meeting with someone didn’t go that well, there’s no harm in picking up the phone and saying: “Hey, I was having an off day, I’d love to meet again!”

Artwork by NICK ZHU

Dinsa Sachan

Dinsa Sachan writes for Fast Company, Playboy, and Scientific American Mind, among others. She also edits Nucleus Mag, a weekly science and culture newsletter.

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